6 best TV streaming boxes

David Phelan

The days of appointment-to-view TV are largely over, though watercooler moments like Bodyguard and live sport remain important exceptions. But for many of us, streaming programmes when we want to watch them has become the norm.

The services include Netflix, Amazon Prime, and others. Many of the newest TVs have apps built in for each of the above so you can stream without the need for a separate box. But for the most comprehensive range of services, one of these mostly rather small boxes is needed.

Note also that many of them include remote controls with microphones so you can simply speak your instructions, such as “find me the latest episode of The Crown” or “show me movies starring Tom Hanks”. Some boxes, like Apple TV, will search through multiple services from a voice command. Additionally, the remotes are designed precisely for the necessary functions, from rewind to menu navigation and voice search. Using the TV built-in app with the TV remote’s buttons can be a little more fiddly.

If you have a 4K TV, it’s best to find a 4K-capable streaming box. Some boxes have other apps besides programming, such as games, or more serious apps like yoga, for instance.

As well as 4K compatibility, keep an eye out for HDR (High Dynamic Range) which is a technology that increases dynamic range to provide detailed images in both bright skies and dark shadows, for instance, at the same time. Of course, this only works with an HDR-compatible TV.

Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K: $34.99, Amazon

4K capable? Yes

HDR? Yes

Voice remote? Yes

Compatible with Netflix, Amazon Prime? Both

Games and other apps? Wide selection

The Fire TV Stick plugs into the HDMI connector on the back of your TV. Note that like all the boxes here, it still requires a mains connection as well. For full access to Prime Video, you’ll need a Prime subscription, which is $119 a year. These include many Prime Originals such as the latest Jeremy Clarkson show The Grand Tour, for instance.

It’s 4K-capable and the range of content apps is wide. The microphone gives you access to Alexa so you can not only choose programming but also turn the heating up and down if you have compatible gadgets, like Nest, for instance. The Amazon interface is simple and straightforward. This is the second-generation version of the Alexa voice remote and includes dedicated power, mute and volume buttons to control your TV or soundbar.

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Apple TV 4K: From $179, Apple

4K capable? Yes

HDR? Yes

Voice remote? Yes

Compatible with Netflix, Amazon Prime? Both

Games and other apps? Wide selection

The strengths of the Apple TV 4K box include Dolby Atmos sound on compatible systems as well as 4K and HDR. When 4K content became available to buy or rent, Apple not only set the prices the same as HD but upgraded any purchases already made in HD to the higher-resolution format. The Apple interface is particularly attractive and includes a useful TV app which remembers what you’ve been watching and stores your place in the episode you’ve reached, with programmes from multiple sources.

There’s little in the way of free content. Subscriptions to Amazon Prime and Netflix bring extensive libraries, and of course catch-up services are available. Beyond that, the range of TV and film to buy or rent is comprehensive.

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Roku Streaming Stick+: $49.99, Roku

4K capable? Yes

HDR? Yes

Voice remote? Yes

Compatible with Netflix, Amazon Prime? Both

Games and other apps? Few

Roku has hundreds of streaming channels from mainstream offerings like ITV Hub to dedicated horror or sci-fi stations. The remote has a dedicated Netflix button, which is handy. Its interface is straightforward and it works well. It’s keenly priced and in some ways offers more than its rivals.

The range of channels is so extensive that it’s easy to spend considerable time just signing up to more – many are free or have a trial period.

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Amazon Fire TV Stick: $24.99, Amazon

4K capable? No

HDR? No

Voice remote? Yes

Compatible with Netflix, Amazon Prime? Both

Games and other apps? Wide selection

If you don’t have a 4K TV you can opt for a Fire TV Stick without it, which costs £10 less than the model above. It still comes with a voice remote, though an earlier version, which lacks the power, volume and mute buttons of the later 4K version. So, in other words, you have to turn the TV on or off, and volume up or down on the TV remote, not the Amazon one. Other than that, it’s a similar size and includes mostly the same capabilities. Ideal for a second TV, for instance.

Otherwise, the Stick without 4K works in exactly the same way and looks pretty similar, too. Like the other Amazon stick above, it sits on the back of your TV, plugged into an HDMI socket, so it’s completely out of sight. The remote still works because it uses Bluetooth, not infra-red, so no line of sight is needed.

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Google Chromecast Ultra: $35, Google​

4K capable? Yes

HDR? Yes

Voice remote? No remote

Compatible with Netflix, Amazon Prime? Netflix

Games and other apps? Some

Until the 4K Amazon Stick arrived, this was the undisputed value streamer for 4K TVs. It’s still highly competent and very easy, not to mention quick, to set up. There’s no remote control. Instead, you use the appropriate Google-branded app on your smartphone. That also means it’s easy to cast, as Google calls it, video from your phone or tablet onto the bigger TV screen. It has a built-in ethernet adapter which aids with the simplicity of connection.

Unlike other boxes here, the interface lacks a central hub of apps – the Chromecast is all about streaming content from your phone, tablet or computer rather than finding the channels you can browse. Instead, you must rely on the Google Home app to find content. Then you use apps which feature a distinctive Cast button, touch the button and your chosen content appears on the TV. The Netflix app works with Chromecast, while Amazon Video does not.

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Apple TV: $149, Amazon

4K capable? No

HDR? No

Voice remote? Yes

Compatible with Netflix, Amazon Prime? Both

Games and other apps? Wide selection

Like the cheaper Amazon Stick, this is a more affordable box from Apple, one which lacks 4K and HDR display capabilities of the pricier unit, and so is ideal for those rooms with HD-capable TVs instead. The box itself is a cute, well-crafted square with rounded corners and the remote, identical to the 4K one, is simple to use (though sometimes swiping the touch-sensitive area can feel inexact).

Apple’s huge range of apps from games to more useful items like AirBnB, for instance, mean there’s always extensive content to divert you.

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The Verdict: Best TV streaming boxes

Best value is the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K, though the interface is smooth and appealing on the Apple TV and Apple TV 4K.